Friday, August 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Perfectionism, Pragmatism and Pride

Sally lent her guitar method book to me last year, and I have been studying it daily. The first solo piece that you come to in the book is entitled "Spanish Study". As you can see in the small snippet pictured, the first section has pairs of eighth-notes, and the second section has triplets.

There is no speed posted for the piece, and I originally learned it about 60. It is simpler than it looks as the high note is a drone on the open E. At a speed of 60, I am playing two notes per second in the first part, and three notes per second for the triplets. The triplet is awkward, but I eventually got it to not sound too ragged, and then worked on improving my speed. I stopped at a speed of 96, pleased with the overall sound of the piece. Still, a nagging part of me wondered what the tempo should really be ...

I found out. I was listening to Liona Boyd play a piece called Asturia, by Isaac Albeniz. Suddenly I heard the theme! "Spanish Study" is a brief excerpt from a longer piece called "Asturia"! Well - the tempo was pretty quick. Very quick. I fished out my metronome and tried to measure it. My metronome only goes up to 208, so it was too slow. My best guess is she is playing at a speed between 220-240, and she was doing it fluidly and effortlessly.

I was devastated. My puny 96 was mocking me. I knew I was not going to be able to play at 240 (approximately 12 notes per second), but surely I could gain some speed and salvage some sense of self worth. After three months of practise (I practised other things also) I was up to a ragged 132 and feeling topped out. Should I drop it down to 120 and play it smoothly? Is that good enough for performance? After all, who will know what speed it should be at? Those were the thoughts of my pragmatic side, which wins out quite often. But shouldn't I try to play it perfectly for a performance? My pride and sense of professionalism was trying to have its say. 240. 240. 240. The chant was maddening.

I decided to do something I hadn't done in a while - I looked at the music. Imagine my astonishment to see "p i a" for the right-hand fingering on the triplets. I had carelessly been playing it "p i m", probably because the opening couplets were labelled as "p m". (Terminology note: p=thumb i=index m=middle a=ring). Unfortunately, "p i m" pulls your hand out of alignment, which was why I was struggling with the speed. In classical guitar, all else being equal, your top three strings each belong to a specific finger, and since I needed to play the first and third strings, the first and third fingers were obviously called for.

So I decided to try the new fingering, and even with the awkwardness of using the ring finger, I could sense the difference. Once I brought the strength in my ring finger up to par, my speed increased dramatically. I decided to set myself a goal of 176 for the tempo, which would be a nice quick speed and still reachable. I would then polish it, perform it, and put it away. What I didn't realize was that I would hit my speed target in three weeks.

So now my inner demon is saying "176 is not too far away from 200 - you can do it". I'm not really sure now when to quit. Is it "good enough", or do I try for "better"?

I face this dilemma in anything I try, but rarely is it as clear cut an issue as in this piece. I would love some feedback from my sisters on their thoughts between the drive for perfection in performance, and willing to settle for "good enough"

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